Security Theater

I thought I was done whining about airport security.  Truly, I did.  But some things worth whining about are also just too good not to share.

I passed through O’Hare this week.  When I got to security, there was almost no line at the ID checkpoint, but there was a 15 minute wait from there to the X-ray machines.  Never one to leave unwell enough alone, I turned to the TSA guy, who, at this point, was twiddling his thumbs, and had this brief conversation:

Me:               “Say, I don’t suppose you could call back there and get them to open up another lane, could you?”

TSA Guy:    “No, we don’t have the people.  I’m sorry.  This happens all the time.”

Me:              “I know.  It drives me crazy.  This is, like, the world’s easiest operations problem.”  (NOTE TO READERS: Sorry about the ‘like.’  I was on my way to Southern California and experienced a sudden bout of premature enunciation.  Now back to our story. . .)

TSA Guy:    “Yeah, some of our supervisors aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed.  I’m about to rotate back there.  I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.”

Me:              “OK, thanks.”

The guy standing next to me then started the following, somewhat longer, conversation.  At the risk of repeating myself, please remember that I never make this stuff up because I’m simply not that good.

Other Guy:  “I’m afraid you’re trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  This is just security theater.”

Me:                  “What a great way to describe it.”

Other guy:    “Yeah, it’s nothing but security theater.  It’s all about the appearance, not about security.  I mean, would you want to hire people for this?  It’s a dead-end job with no outcome that you deliver.  They just process people.  They’ve even completely disconnected it from actually getting people on airplanes.  You miss your flight, they don’t care.  You don’t exactly get the best and the brightest for this kind of work.  I’m telling you, it’s just theater.  If we were serious about security, we’d do what the Israeli’s do.”

Me:                  “Which is. . ?”

Other Guy:  “They profile, and then they screen the daylights out of the high-risk people.  And nobody bombs their airplanes.”

Me:                  “Got it.”

Other Guy:  “We can’t profile because of the politics.  Everyone has to get screened or people would complain that it’s unfair.  So we reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.”

Me:                  “I know what you mean.  And you’d think that if there was a right way to do this, we’d do it that way everywhere.  But it’s handled differently in every airport.  You know what’s the most amazing thing that I’ve seen?  The first time I encountered a full body scanner, I was in Seattle.  They had this four-minute video loop playing while you were in line, so you saw it over and over and over again.  It explained all the steps they take with the scanner to protect your privacy.  The last thing it said was, ‘As a final precaution, the images are blurred to protect your privacy.’  Really.  It said that.”

Other Guy:  “So it’s a completely pointless exercise.”

Me:                  “It sure sounded that way to me.”

Other Guy:  “Like I said, theater.  Think about the shoes.  And the gels and the laptops.  Do you think they’re actually looking at your laptop?  Of course they aren’t.  But if it didn’t look like they were, someone would scream that they’re not checking laptops.  It’s nothing but security theater.”

Me:                  “I think you’re right.  So, do you live here in Chicago?”

Other Guy:  “No.  I live in Washington.”

Me:                  “D.C.?”

Other Guy:  “Yup.”

Me:                  “Cool.  I used to live there, too.  What do you do?”

Other Guy:  “I work for the Department of Homeland Security.”

Two simultaneous and extraordinary events: a government official telling the pure, unvarnished truth and me being rendered speechless.

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